6 Shockingly Successful Ancient Warfare Tactics
As long as humans have walked the Earth, they’ve been finding reasons to kill each other. Over time, we’ve gotten pretty good at it. It should come as no surprise then that over the years armies have come up with some pretty inventive ways to gain advantage over the enemy. Many of these strategies have been picked up and perfected by modern armies. Still, it can be pretty surprising just how creative ancient armies could be when it came to the art of killing. Here are some surprising, but often effective, ancient warfare tactics.
1.The Egyptians Lost a Major Battle Because of Cats
It’s pretty much common knowledge that the ancient Egyptians adored cats. Several of their gods were depicted as cats. Mafdet, Bastet, and Sekhmet, representing justice, fertility, and power respectively, were usually depicted as cats.
Cats were seen as the protectors of Egypt. References to cats protecting Egyptians by killing venomous snakes and protecting the pharaohs can be found dating back to the First Dynasty of Egypt. No wonder the cult of the cat became so popular.
Unfortunately for the Egyptians, their enemies weren’t above using their beliefs against them. During the 6th century BC, the Egyptians were busy fighting off Persian invaders who sought to take over Egyptian lands. The fighting was brutal, and both sides were desperate for an advantage.
At the Battle of Pelusium, Persian King Cambyses II ordered his warriors to paint cats on their shields to deter the Egyptians from attacking. When the Persians marched into battle they did so from behind a large group of cats.
The Egyptian forces were unwilling to risk attracting the wrath of their gods and promptly surrendered to the Persians. The victory proved to be decisive, and not long after the Persians became the new rulers of Egypt. This battle is often described as one of the earliest recorded examples of psychological warfare.
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The Persians may have pioneered psychological warfare tactics in the 6th century BC, using the Egyptians reverence for cats against them. King Cambyses at the siege of Peluse by Paul-Marie Lenoir, oil on canvas, 1872. (Public Domain)
2.Chemical Warfare Has Been Around Since the 3rd Century BC
We often think of chemical warfare as being a relatively modern trend. Chemical warfare conjures up images of chlorine gas used during WWI, Agent Orange in Vietnam, or perhaps white phosphorus. We like to think ancient warfare tactics were more honorable somehow.
Wrong. The earliest evidence of chemical weapons being used in warfare dates back to around the 3rd century BC. The evidence was found at the site of Dura-Europos, located in Syria along the Euphrates River.
Dura-Europos was a Roman city that fell to the Sassanians. There are no surviving written sources that described the siege on Dura-Europos, but archaeological evidence paints a terrifying picture. It appears that the Sassanians attempted to breach the city walls by tunneling beneath them. The Romans caught on and began to dig their own tunnels as a countermeasure.
When Dura-Europos was excavated in the 1920s, the bodies of nineteen Roman soldiers and one Sasanian soldier were found in one of the tunnels. Strangely, there were no signs of battle or bloodshed. It wasn’t until 2009 that historians found the answer.
It turns out the Sassanians had used toxic gas to kill the Roman defenders. The second the Roman tunnel clashed with the Sassanian tunnel, the invaders threw sulfur and bitumen onto a fire. This created a toxic mix that turned into sulphuric gas when breathed in. It would only have taken a couple of minutes to kill the Romans in the tunnel.
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The Romans thought they were clever, tunneling under the walls of Dura-Europos, but the Sassanians filled these tunnels with deadly sulphuric gas in an early chemical warfare tactic (Marsyas / CC BY SA 3.0)
3.The Hittites Were Using Biological Warfare in 1500 BC
There is perhaps only one thing worse than chemical warfare, and that’s biological warfare. Just the mere mention of biological warfare in the modern press is enough to make one’s blood run cold. But just like chemical warfare, this isn’t a new warfare tactic. Humans have been carrying out biological warfare against one another since ancient times.
Of course, in antiquity, they had no knowledge of bacteria or viruses, but they were smart enough to put two and two together: when people became ill, very often those around them soon started showing the same symptoms.
The first case of biological warfare was recorded in the Hittite texts of 1500-1200 BC. The Hittites made reference to people who were sick with tularemia being driven into enemy lands with the hope of infecting the enemy. It was devastatingly effective.
The connection was also made between the spread of disease and the rotting corpses of animals and people. As far back as 400 BC, Scythian archers were dipping their arrows in rotting bodies and feces-tainted blood. The Romans later followed suit and adopted the practice of dipping their swords in rotting blood and excrement.
Image from an illuminated manuscript depicting a Byzantine siege of a citadel. A tactic of ancient biological warfare was to hurl infected dead bodies over city walls (Public Domain)
4.The Ancient Greeks Invented a Super Weapon We Can’t Replicate
Nowadays lots of people have heard of “Greek fire,” also known as “sea fire”. Greek fire was an ancient super weapon that to this day is shrouded in mystery. We don’t know exactly how it worked, how it was made, or, despite its name, who invented it.
According to the Greek historian Theophanes, Greek fire was invented by a Greek architect named Kallinikos in the 6th century AD. However, there is little other evidence to back this claim up. Many historians today believe it was invented in the 7th century AD by the Byzantine Empire. They believe it was first created in Constantinople and was discovered by a team of chemists from the Alexandrian school.
What we do know is the weapon was terrifying. It was a liquid that was either kept in clay pots and then launched by catapult, or sent down tubes mounted on ships. Greek fire could spontaneously ignite, and once lit, it was impossible to put out. It could burn on the ocean's surface, and if water was thrown on it, it only spread further. Simply put, it created an uncontrollable inferno.
The weapon played a major role in the defeat of the Arabs during the defense of Constantinople, and later against the Venetians. Despite the weapon being so powerful, no record exists of how to make it, and scientists today have been left stumped.
A Byzantine ship using Greek fire against a ship belonging to the rebel Thomas the Slav, 821. 12th century illustration from the Madrid Skylitzes. (Public Domain)
5.Ancient Animal Warfare Tactics
We’re all familiar with the idea of animals being used in warfare. Horses have been used to some extent or another in warfare since around 4000 BC. But what might surprise you is how other animals were used in ancient warfare.
Elephants are the largest and most powerful land mammals on the planet. Their size means they are great at trampling enemy soldiers; they can gore enemies and even throw them around like a ragdoll with their tusks. An angry elephant is also terrifying to behold, making them a psychological weapon as well.
It’s believed the Indians first used elephants as weapons in the 4th century BC. The practice soon began to spread. By the time Alexander the Great was fighting the Persians at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, the Persians were fielding elephant units.
The use of elephants as an ancient warfare tactic helped decide the Battle of Zama, painting circa 1567 (Public Domain)
The use of elephants as weapons isn’t particularly surprising, but how Alexander countered them is. How did he beat back the mighty elephants of the Persians? According to a letter written to Aristotle, he used pigs.
Elephants are skittish by nature and apparently, the sound of a pig squealing was all it took to scare away the enemy elephants. The Megarians took this one step further when fighting the Macedonians. They covered the poor pigs in pitch and set them alight before sending them running at the elephants.
Alexander the Great driving off elephants with war pigs and musical instruments in a detail from a French illuminated manuscript from 1420. (The British Library / CC BY 4.0)
Ingenious uses of animals in ancient warfare don’t stop there though. They were also used as a kind of early hand grenade. It has been recorded that Hannibal of Carthage, mostly remembered for his use of elephants, had clay pots filled with venomous snakes. These ‘snake bombs’ were then thrown onto the decks of enemy ships, where the surviving snakes could wreak havoc on the crew.
This tactic was later copied by the people of Hatra in Mesopotamia when fighting off the Roman troops of Septimius Severus. Sadly, they didn’t have many poisonous snakes to hand, so they had to manage with pots filled with poisonous insects and even scorpions.
In fact, the Romans had a bad track record when it came to being pelted with bees. In 72 BC, the Romans were attacking Themiscyra, a Greek town famous for its production of honey. The Romans tried their usual tactic of tunneling under the city walls to circumvent their enemy's defenses. The Themiscyrans responded by filling the tunnels with swarms of very angry bees.
6.The Ancient Greeks Claimed to Have Built a Death Ray 2,000 Years Ago
When studying ancient Greek history, it can be more than a little difficult to separate fact from fiction. It's safe to say Greek historians had a habit of embellishing some of their achievements. That is to say, this next entry should probably be taken with a grain of salt.
Two historians, the 2nd century AD writer Lucian and 4th century AD architect Anthemius of Tralles both make mention of two superweapons created by Archimedes. Archimedes was a Greek mathematician, engineer, astronomer, and most importantly, inventor.
According to these historians, Archimedes came to the rescue during the Roman siege of Syracuse, a historic Sicilian city, between 213-212 BC. He supposedly did this by creating the world’s first death ray. A series of large reflectors, probably made from highly polished bronze or copper, was used to focus the sun’s rays on approaching Roman ships. The concentrated rays caused the ships to burst into flames, like an ant under a sadistic child’s magnifying glass.
Wall painting from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, showing the Greek mathematician Archimedes' mirror being used to burn Roman military ships. Painted by Giulio Parigi in 1600 (Public Domain)
Unsurprisingly, modern historians aren’t convinced; an ancient Greek death ray does sound a tad unlikely. However, two separate experiments have proven the death ray was possible. In 1973, Greek scientists recreated the invention using a combination of 70 mirrors coated in copper. Then in 2005, a group of Massachusetts students also managed to recreate the weapon. In both cases, the scientists managed to set fire to a wooden boat at a decent range.
If a death ray wasn’t impressive enough, Archimedes is said to have invented another impressive weapon during the siege. Ancient Greek historians claimed Archimedes installed a giant iron claw that could lift up and then dash invading Roman ships against the cliffs below the city. This invention hasn’t been recreated yet.
Detail of a wall painting of the Claw of Archimedes sinking a ship, taking the name "iron hand" in the ancient sources literally, by Giulio Parigi circa 1600 (Public Domain)
In ancient warfare, everything from the humble bee to the sun itself was used as a potential weapon. It will probably never cease to amaze us how inventive people can become when they want someone dead.
We tend to look back at the ancients and scoff at how primitive their lives and methods seem. But in truth, their ingenuity was beyond impressive. It’s just a shame so much of their genius was wasted thinking up ways to kill each other.
Perhaps the most surprising fact on this list is that we’re still at it. Every year, governments and private companies spend billions of dollars researching and refining new and increasingly creative warfare tactics. In this way, we’re no different from the practitioners of ancient warfare.
Top Image: Ancient warfare tactics were no less brutal than today’s and some were quite innovative. Source: Arhun / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell
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Everts, S. May 11, 2015. A Brief History of Chemical Warfare. Science History Institute. Available at: https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/a-brief-history-of-chemical-war
Metcalfe, N. 2002. A Short History of Biological Warfare. Taylor & Francis Ltd. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/45352076